Air Warfare Today

My last post summarised the ins and outs of the missile weaponry used by most modern air forces today, and the impact that this had on fighter technology with the development of the interceptor and fighter-bomber as separate classes. This technology was flashy and rose to prominence during the Korean war, but the powers-that-be still used large bomber aircraft during that conflict and were convinced that carpet bombing was the most effective strategy for a large-scale land campaign. And who knows; if WWIII ever ends up happening, maybe that sheer scale of destruction will once again be called for.

However, this tactic was not universally appreciated. As world warfare descended ever more into world politics and scheming, several countries began to adopt the fighter-bomber as their principle strike aircraft. A good example is Israel, long-time allies of the US, who used American fighter-bombers early on during the 1970s Middle East conflict to take out the air bases of their Soviet-backed Arab neighbours, giving them air superiority in the region that proved very valuable in the years to come as that conflict escalated. These fighters were valuable to such countries, who could not afford the cost of a large-scale bombing campaign; faster, precision guided destruction made far better fiscal sense and annoyed the neighbours less when they were parked on their doorstep (unless your government happened to be quite as gung-ho as Israel’s). Throughout the 1960s, this realisation of the value of fighter aircraft lead to further developments in their design; ground-assault weapons, in the form of air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs, began to be standard equipment on board fighter aircraft once their value as principle strike weapons was realised and demand for them to perform as such increased.  Furthermore, as wars were fought and planes were brought down, it was also realised that dogfighting was not in fact a dead art when one’s opponents (ie the Soviet Union and her friends) also had good hardware, so maneouvreability was once again reinstated as a design priority. Both of these advances were greatly aided by the rapid advancements in the electronics of the age, which quickly found their way into avionics; the electronic systems used by aircraft for navigation, monitoring, and (nowadays) help flying the aircraft, among other things.

It was also at this time that aircraft began experimenting with the idea of VTOL: Vertical Take Off and Landing. This was an advantageous property for an aircraft to have since it limited the space it needed for its take off and landing, allowing it to land in a wider range of environments where there wasn’t a convenient long stretch of bare tarmac. It was also particularly useful for aircraft carriers, which had been shown during WW2’s battle of Midway to be incredibly useful military tools, since any space not used for runway could be used to carry more precious aircraft. Many approaches were tried, including some ‘tail-sitting’ aircraft that mounted onto a vertical wall, but the only one to achieve mainstream success was the British Harrier, with two rotatable engine vents that could be aimed downwards for vertical takeoff. These offered the Harrier another trick- it was the only aircraft with a reverse gear. A skilled pilot could, if being tailed by a hostile, face his vents forward so his engines were pushing him in the opposite direction to his direction of travel, causing him to rapidly slow down and for his opponent to suddenly find himself with an enemy behind him eyeing up a shot. This isn’t especially relevant, I just think it’s really cool.

However, the event that was to fundamentally change late 20th century air warfare like no other was the Vietnam war; possibly the USA’s biggest ever military mistake. The war itself was chaotic on almost every level, with soldiers being accused of everything from torture to drug abuse, and by the mid 1960s it had already been going on, on and off, for over a decade years. The American public was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the war in general, as the hippy movement began to lift off, but in August 1964 the USS Maddox allegedly fired at a couple of torpedo boats that were following it through the Gulf of Tonkin. I say allegedly, because there is much speculation as to the identity of the vessels themselves; as then-president Lyndon B. Johnson said, “those sailors out there may have been shooting at flying fish”. In any case, the outcome was the important bit; when (now known to be false) reports came in two days later of a second attack in the area, Congress backed Johnson in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which basically gave the President the power to do what he liked in South-East Asia without making the war official (which would have meant consulting the UN). This resulted in a heavy escalation of the war both on the ground and in the air, but possibly the most significant side-effect was ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, which authorised a massive-scale bombing campaign to be launched on the Communist North Vietnam. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, Curtis LeMay, had been calling for such a saturation bombing campaign for a while by then, and said “we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age”.

Operation Rolling Thunder ended up dropping, mainly via B-52 bombers, a million tonnes of bombs across North Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail (used to supply the militant NLF, aka Viet Cong, operating in South Vietnam) across neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, in possibly the worst piece of foreign politics ever attempted by a US government- and that’s saying something. Not only did opinion of the war, both at home and abroad, take a large turn for the worse, but the bombing campaign itself was a failure; the Communist support for the NLF did not come from any physical infrastructure, but from an underground system that could not be targeted by a carpet bombing campaign. As such, NLF support along the Ho Chi Minh continued throughout Rolling Thunder, and after three years the whole business was called off as a very expensive failure. The shortcomings of the purpose-built bomber as a concept had been highlighted in painful detail for all the world to see; but two other aircraft used in Vietnam showed the way forward. The F-111 had variable geometry wings, meaning they could change their shape depending on the speed the aircraft was going. This meant it performed well at a wide variety of airspeeds, both super- and sub-sonic (see my post regarding supersonic flight for the ins and outs of this), and whilst the F-111 never had the performance to utilise them properly (since it was turboprop, rather than purely jet powered) the McDonnell F-4 Phantom did; the Phantom claimed more kills than any other fighter aircraft during Vietnam, and was (almost entirely accidentally) the first multi-role aircraft, operating both as the all-weather interceptor it was designed to be and the strike bomber its long range and large payload capacity allowed it to be.

The key advantage of multi-role aircraft is financial; in an age where the massive wars of the 20th century are slowly fading into the past (ha, ha) and defence budgets are growing ever-slimmer, it makes much more sense to own two or three aircraft that can each do five things very well than 15 that can only do one each to a superlative degree of perfection. This also makes an air force more flexible and able to respond faster; if an aircraft is ready for anything, then it alone is sufficient to cover a whole host of potential situations. Modern day aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon take this a stage further; rather than being able to be set up differently to perform multiple different roles, they try to have a single setup that can perform any role (or, at least, that any ‘specialised’ setup also allows for other scenarios and necessities should the need arise). Whilst the degree of unspecialisation of the hardware does leave multirole aircraft vulnerable to more specialised variations if the concept is taken too far, the advantages of multirole capabilities in a modern air force existing with the modern political landscape are both obvious and pressing. Pursuit and refinement of this capability has been the key challenge facing aircraft designers over the last 20 to 30 years, but there have been two new technologies that have made their way into the field. The first of these is built-in aerodynamic instability (or ‘relaxed stability’), which has been made possible by the invention of ‘fly-by-wire’ controls, by which the joystick controls electronic systems that then tell the various components to move, rather than being mechanically connected to them. Relaxed stability basically means that, left to its own devices, an aircraft will oscillate from side to side or even crash by uncontrollable sideslipping rather than maintain level flight, but makes the aircraft more responsive and maneouvrable. To ensure that the aircraft concerned do not crash all the time, computer systems generally monitor the pitch and yaw of the aircraft and make the tiny corrections necessary to keep the aircraft flying straight. It is an oft-quoted fact that if the 70 computer systems on a Eurofighter Typhoon that do this were to crash, the aircraft would quite literally fall out of the sky.

The other innovation to hit the airframe market in recent years has been the concept of stealth, taking one of two forms. Firstly we consider the general design of modern fighters, carefully designed to minimise their radar cross-section and make them less visible to enemy radar. They also tend to shroud their engine exhausts so they aren’t visually visible from a distance. Then, we consider specialist designs such as the famous American Lockheed Nighthawk, whose strange triangular design covered in angled, black sheets of material are designed to scatter and absorb radar and make them ‘invisible’, especially at night. This design was, incidentally, one of the first to be unflyably unstable when in flight, and required a fly-by-wire control system that was revolutionary for that time.

Perhaps the best example of how far air warfare has come over the last century is to be found in the first Gulf War, during 1991. At night, Nighthawk stealth bombers would cross into Hussein-held territory to drop their bombs, invisible to Hussein’s radar and anti-aircraft systems, but unlike wars of old they didn’t just drop and hope at their targets. Instead, they were able to target bunkers and other such fortified military installations with just one bomb; a bomb that they could aim at and drop straight down a ventilation shaft. Whilst flying at 600 miles an hour.

The Curious Tale of Jack Dunlap

If, gentle reader, you happen to be from the USA, and especially if you happen to live in or in the vicinity of Washington, then you are likely to be more familiar than the rest of us with Arlington National Cemetery. This is a huge graveyard near the centre of Washington DC, and contains a number of war memorials and similar. It also contains the grave of John F Kennedy, whose final resting place it became 4 years after his assassination in 1963 (he had originally been buried in a small plot in the same graveyard, but was later moved to a plot containing a memorial). However, not long before Jack Kennedy was finally lain to rest, another Jack was buried just a little way away- one whose political significance was also huge, but went unknown to almost everyone. His name was Jack Dunlap, and his story is an extraordinary one.

In 1960, Dunlap led an unremarkable life. Married to an unworking wife and with five children, he was a sergeant in the US army with a distinguished record of service in the Korean war and the medals to show for it. However, now he was confined to more mundane work as a clerk-messenger, ferrying important documents around Fort Meade, the National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters in Washington. This made him around $100 a week, which even in 1960 wasn’t much to feed seven hungry mouths.

However, in late 1960 Dunlap encountered a big slice of luck. A distant great-uncle of his died, and bequeathed him a plantation in Louisiana. Suddenly, the dough was rolling in, and Dunlap began living the high life. A new Cadillac, fine suits, smart restaurants, his own cabin cruiser, and his newfound passion for speedboat racing were now within his financial grasp, he told his friends, but he hung onto his job out of a sense that it was important. He didn’t tell most of them about the mistress he had set up in her own apartment, but to her he told a different story. He put on his swagger, and began to brag about how he ‘wasn’t what I say I am’, and all the top-secret stuff his job required him to handle, ending with the old line “If you knew what I actually did, I’d have to kill you”.

Still, the Louisiana story was enough for his NSA bosses, and he received red carpet treatment. Not only was he given days off to go speedboat racing, but after an accident in which he injured his back they sent an ambulance and transferred him to a military hospital. As Jack joked to his friends “They were afraid the sedatives might make me tell a lot of secrets I know”

But to find out the real truth, you’d have to know about a curious fact of his work.  Some of the documents and papers he was entrusted to deliver would turn up late. Very late in fact- nobody noticed, but it might take a day or so for an important paper to get to where it needed to when it passed through Dunlap’s hands. This was because it had taken a little detour- first up Jack’s shirt, then to a man in Washington who would photograph or photocopy them, before being taken back to their intended recipient. The man in Washington was a Soviet agent, and Dunlap was selling his country’s secrets to the USSR.

This was where his newfound wealth had come from- a $50,000 annual salary, around ten times his NSA one, had been offered to Dunlap by the agent in a meeting that autumn ‘to help him bear the expense of his five kids’, in exchange for the information he provided. And provide it he did. Jack Dunlap carried on playing his game of betrayal for nearly four years, on one occasion even bringing an unsuspecting mistress with him to a meeting with his Soviet contact.

However, all good things come to an end, and in Jack Dunlap’s case that end was rather abrupt. In March 1964 his NSA term had come to an end, and he was due to be posted elsewhere- somewhere he might not be able to continue his lucrative trade in information. To try and keep his position (and thus his illicit income), he said that his family were too settled in Washington to move, and asked that, if he could not work for the NSA as a soldier any more, perhaps he could resign and assume work as a civilian.

This would have been a great plan had it not been for one catch- the lie detector. Whilst Army personnel were considered safe, all civilian NSA staff were required to take a session on it before assuming work and, try as he might, Dunlap could not persuade them that his military record excluded him from that. He tried to persuade himself that four years of casual espionage had kept him cool, calm and collected enough to beat the lie detector (which was a fundamentally flawed and eminently cheatable device), but unfortunately it was not to be. Measurements of his muscle movements, breathing, perspiration and heart rate when answering rather sensitive questions altered the NSA opinion of him from a trustworthy, honest, efficient worker to a habitual sneak ‘capable of petty theft’. Whilst not a damning indictment of the high treason he was performing, it was enough to get Dunlap transferred to a desk job and to get his bosses asking around. The plantation in Louisiana was found to be bogus, and they started trying to find out where Dunlap’s wealth came from.

For Dunlap, this was a terrifying time. Without any secrets to ferry and sell, he was abandoned by his Soviet contact. He knew perfectly well that four years of betraying such sensitive information was more than enough to send him to the electric chair, or at least the rest of his life in maximum security without a hope of parole. His mental state began to unravel- he had paranoid fears of shadowy men in dark corridors asking him to ‘just come this way’, or a platoon of soldiers kicking down the door. Finally, it all got too much for him, and on July 22nd, 1964, he drove to an abandoned creek and suffocated himself with his car’s exhaust fumes.

During his time as a spy, Jack Dunlap ‘told’ the Soviet Union almost everything about the United States’ coding machines, revealed exactly what the US knew about Soviet military power, and handled some information concerning Oleg Penkovsky a Soviet double agent working predominately for the British that went straight back to the Soviets and almost certainly helped lead to the eventual capture and execution of one of the most influential intelligence tools the western powers had (Penkovsky was a Soviet colonel who, disillusioned with his country’s politics, had begun to play exactly the same treacherous game as Dunlap). And that’s only the stuff we know about- the KGB have (understandably) never released the information they got from Dunlap, so he could even have contributed to Kennedy’s assassination for all we know (far be it from me to add yet another string to that particular conspiracy theory). Many might consider him a traitor, a villain who gave up both his principles and his country for a couple of hundred thousand bucks- but then again, we might consider Penkovsky, playing the same game, a hero who died in the fight against communism. What we can all be sure of, however, is that Jack Dunlap almost certainly changed the course of history in his own little way- much like the other famous Jack spending his eternal slumber just a stone’s throw away.